Greeting the arriving audience in the outer lobby of the Cherry Lane Theatre, where Laura Pedersen’s delightful comedic drama, THE BRIGHTNESS OF HEAVEN, is running, is the festive sound of a fiddle, sawing through the sprightly paces of an Irish jig, fit for a country Cèilidh dance. Upon entering the theatre proper, it is apparent that the play is already somewhat in progress, as the music is live; onstage, a young lady is playing her violin in the living area of a house whose dated furnishings place it firmly in the 1970’s. A framed photo of the Pope stares across the room to the opposite wall, where the standard-issue photo portrait of JFK stares back from a collection of typical Irish-esque wall decor, replete with familiar Gaelic signs and posters amid a homely jumble of family portraits and framed children’s drawings. There is a worn-looking upright piano at center, on top of which a statue of the Virgin Mary dominates a collection of candles and crosses, and the wall hooks near the front door are laden with winter coats. There are trays of meringue cookies laid out to cool on the counter of the kitchen area, and inclined upon a comfortable easy chair, in the midst of all this, is an older man with white hair slumbering underneath a newspaper, which covers him like a blanket.
Our fiddler (Kendra Jo Brook) completes her recital to warm applause, delivers the standard “please turn off your cell phones” speech, and leaves the playing area as members of the Kilgannon family begin to enter. The man sleeping under the newspaper turns out to be Edwin Kilgannon (Peter Cormican), a music teacher at a local Catholic High School, and after he awakens and leaves to go to church his wife, Joyce (Kate Kearney-Patch) and widowed sister Mary Jablonski (Paula Ewin) get to work on the decorations for the surprise celebration they have in store for him this evening at the school, celebrating his many years there as the popular director of the school’s musicals. Many of his former students will be there, and his family is convening for Sunday dinner at this cozy middle-class house in Buffalo, but they are actually there to reprise their family act at the event as a surprise tribute to their father. The older generation of this family is represented by Ed, Joyce and Mary, and the younger generation by Mary’s children Grace (Emily Batsford) and Jimmy (James Michael Lambert), as well as by the Kilgannon’s daughter Kathleen (Kendall Rileigh), and sons Dennis (Mark Banik) and Brendan (Bill Coyne).
As anyone who lived through the late 1960’s and early 1970’s will tell you, the generations were pitted against each other; it was the younger generation against the older. Rebellious youth and the rock and roll culture formed a perfect storm in a post-Vietnam America presided over by a corrupt Republican regime, and the kickback from the older generation was occasionally swift and severe, as it was in Kent State and in Chicago. There were take-overs of college campuses across the country, marches on Washington, the shocking assassinations of the Kennedys and Dr. Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement and the frequently brutal attempts to stifle it: these were tumultuous times, and in religious Irish Catholic families like the Kilgannons, the additional issues of traditional faith and obedience to the rules of the church took precedence over all these other generational conflicts.
It is within this fraught context that the musically gifted Kilgannon clan convenes for supper, and things quickly start to unravel around the dinner table. Edwin’s eldest son Brendan, a young but already washed-up actor, is the prodigal son given to drink who returns to be confronted by his sober stay-at-home brother Dennis, who has a job and is raising two young children, but seems to prefer spending all his spare time helping out his parents. Jimmy is openly gay, and tired of pretending otherwise, and Kathleen is secretly “living with” (big no-no) a Jewish man (could it get worse?) she intends to marry. Other family surprises spill out, scandalizing the older generation, but through these emotional upheavals the family struggles to gain some semblance of acceptance and tolerance.
This is a family act in two senses; the polished onstage singing and dancing one, and the awkward, frustrated one that sits around the dinner table, trying to work through the irreconcilable divides of traditional faith and modern secular life. While the real family is fractious and divided, they are nevertheless united in love, and at the end of the day that is what keeps them going. The family musical act, on the other hand, is seamlessly united, and whenever some bit of musical foolishness breaks out, everyone in the family chips in with their share of the harmony effortlessly and skillfully. It is only when one member of the family finally refuses to perform in the act that the real family is in actual danger of losing one of its own, and it is to the playwright’s credit that it isn’t clear until the very end how that will play out.
The marvelous cast, adroitly directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser, is blessed with superb musical skills as well as a very high level of acting talent across the board. It was a pleasure to watch all of them. Ms. Villar-Hauser has cohesively welded these disparate talents into a believable onstage family, and though it doesn’t seem quite fair to single out actors in a cast this good, there is no question that Peter Cormican, Bill Coyne and Paula Ewin are giving stand-out performances in the play’s showier roles. The set and the smart, spot-on period costumes were designed by Meganne George, supported by serviceable light design by Natalie Robin and sound design by Janie Bullard.
Laura Pederson has recreated the turbulent emotional tenor of mid-Watergate American family life, not just in Buffalo but everywhere. Domestic scenes like this were playing out in households all across America. It was clear from the occasionally rueful laughter of the audience, as well as of my own, that many of us have lived through this, and we know this family terrain quite well. The play is a moving, funny and accurate remembrance of these things past, and though the red-hot issues of the 1970’s might seem tame to younger audiences of today, in the capable hands of this excellent cast we are able to feel the real anguish both generations felt, on either side of that great divide.
THE BRIGHTNESS OF HEAVEN, a new play by Laura Pedersen, directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser, with Mark Banik, Emily Batsford, Peter Cormican, Bill Coyne, Paula Ewin, James Michael Lambert, Kate Kearney-Patch and Kendall Rileigh. Set and costume design by Meganne George, lighting design by Natalie Robin, sound design by Janie Bullard, dialect design by Amy Stoller, production stage manager, Alison Hassman, General Manager, Brierpatch Productions.
Wednesday – Friday at 7pm, Saturday at 3pm & 7pm, Sunday at 3pm. Tuesday performances: October 21, 28, November 25. Through Sunday, December 14th at the Cherry Lane Studio Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, NYC. Tickets: www.TheBrightnessofHeaven.com